WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 640, January 26, 2011

MEDIA FEARS AS KAZAKSTAN HEADS FOR UNELECTED PRESIDENCY  Newspaper’s plan to 
campaign against prolonging president’s rule lands it in trouble.  By Artur 
Nigmetov

IWPR COMMENT

TAKING A STAND IN KAZAKSTAN  Journalist who led demo against referendum 
allowing president to avoid elections says even small-scale protest has 
symbolic value.  By Sanat Urnaliev

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MEDIA FEARS AS KAZAKSTAN HEADS FOR UNELECTED PRESIDENCY

Newspaper’s plan to campaign against prolonging president’s rule lands it in 
trouble.

By Artur Nigmetov

Media rights activists in Kazakstan have voiced fears about attempts to muzzle 
the press ahead of a referendum on allowing President Nursultan Nazarbaev to 
rule unelected for the next decade. 

The warnings come after police in Almaty seized the bulk of copies of the Golos 
Respubliki newspaper, due to appear on January 14 just as parliament ruled on 
the referendum bill.

The paper’s editor-in-chief, Sergei Zelepukhin, and other editorial staff were 
detained by police and then released without explanation. Police in Almaty 
refused to speak to IWPR about the incident.

Zelepukhin told a press briefing the same day that the confiscated edition 
included a supplement called “Say No to the Referendum”.

Assuming voters in the referendum, expected some time this spring, approve the 
plan, a presidential election due in 2012 will be shelved and Nazarbaev, who 
has been in power since Soviet times, will stay on until 2020.

The proposal for a nationwide vote on extending the president’s term was 
initiated by a group led by university rector Yerlan Sydykov, which ran a 
campaign that gathered over five million signatures in favour of it, far more 
than the 200,000 needed to trigger a referendum. There were numerous 
allegations that people were coerced into signing.

President Nazarbaev vetoed the bill, but it went forward to parliament 
nevertheless and was passed unanimously. Now he has asked the Constitutional 
Council to rule on whether the legislative amendments should stand; its final 
decision should come in a month’s time.

Nazarbaev’s critics believe he is making a show of opposition to a referendum 
that would strengthen his position because he aware it will be seen by the 
international community as a setback for democracy.

According to Zelepukhin, an additional reason for seizing the Golos Respubliki 
print-run may have been an advertisement for a programme to be broadcast on the 
opposition satellite television channel K-Plus about James Giffen, an American 
businessman who advised President Nazarbaev during the Nineties.

Giffen was indicted in the United States on charges of paying around 80 million 
US dollars in bribes to top Kazak officials in return for operating licenses 
for major western oil companies. The seven-year trial ended in November with 
Giffen walking free after pleading to a tax misdemeanour.

Rozlana Taukina, head of the media rights group Journalists in Trouble believes 
the action taken against Golos Respubliki marks the beginning of a campaign to 
silence the media ahead of the referendum.

“The country’s top leadership, which is against having mechanisms for handing 
over power, has decided to embark on eliminating those opponents which 
influence public opinion, above all the press,” she said.

Taukina said now that another opposition-minded newspaper, Vzglyad, was facing 
bankruptcy thanks to a libel case, it seemed to be Golos Respubliki’s turn.

Tamara Kaleeva, who heads Adil Soz, a media support group, agreed that media 
outlets critical of the authorities might soon be extinguished.

“There’s a harsh campaign of pressure under way in this country,” she said. 
“This latest action by the authorities is quite simply stamping out pluralism 
in the media.”

Golos Respubliki’s anti-referendum stance is one of the few notes of protest 
voiced in the print market, most of which is controlled by the state itself or 
by business interests close to government. Public protests against the 
referendum have largely been confined to an online petition and some localised 
actions by opposition groups and civil society activists.

Artur Nigmetov is a journalist in Kazakstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.


IWPR COMMENT

TAKING A STAND IN KAZAKSTAN

Journalist who led demo against referendum allowing president to avoid 
elections says even small-scale protest has symbolic value. 

By Sanat Urnaliev

As soon as plans were announced for a referendum on extending the president’s 
term in office until 2020, I decided I had to stand up and show I was against 
it. 

I discussed my plan of action on local internet forums, where I made it clear 
what I was going to do but did not ask anyone else to join me as it was a 
matter of private conscience.

However, a colleague from the local Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper, Lukpan 
Akhmedyarov, two students and two activists from the still-unregistered Alga 
party expressed a desire to join me. On January 6, we went to the main square 
in Uralsk, the administrative centre of West Kazakstan region, and took up 
position outside the provincial government building.

The six of us stood there, ringed by about a dozen policemen led by the deputy 
provincial police chief and the head of the public order department.

After just over quarter of an hour, a prosecutor came up to us and handed us a 
document stating that our actions were illegal, as we did not have permission 
to hold a meeting from the local authorities. We ignored this, as the 
constitution of Kazakstan and the International Covenant on Civil and Political 
Rights, which our country has ratified, both give us the right of peaceful 
assembly to express a view on any issue.

What followed was the standard treatment meted out to demonstrators in 
Kazakstan. We were bundled off to a police station, where we were charged with 
the misdemeanours of organising an illegal meeting and resisting police. In 
court, Ahmedyarov and I were each sentenced to five days in jail and fined 100 
US dollars, while the others received fines of between 70 and 200 dollars.

The message is clear – everyone who voices protest against President Nursultan 
Nazarbaev will be arrested and tried. It has happened many times before.

Our demonstration against the referendum was the first of its kind, though 
small. Other similar actions included a youth protest in the financial capital 
Almaty and a one-man protest by an opposition member in the southern city of 
Taraz.

The lack of wider protests is no surprise. People in Kazakstan are fearful of 
expressing their views in public. If they did, they would crushed by the 
authorities.

Fear also breeds apathy. Hence, many of my fellow-citizens are indifferent to 
political developments.

Some political scientists explain away by arguing that our people are innately 
patient. I don’t agree that it’s a question of mindset. People in Kazakstan do 
not know how to channel their feelings of protest mood, or how to articulate 
their unhappiness with the political system.

What is certainly rooted in tradition is the habit of complaining in private, 
drowning one’s sorrows in alcohol, and firmly believing that the actions of one 
person cannot change anything.

Our society has no aspiration to engage in political dialogue, no opportunity 
to put pressure on the authorities in a civilised and peaceful way, and no 
social cohesion.

At the same time, one cannot underestimate the potential impact of expressing 
one’s views as a citizen in public. If we do not, public apathy will lead to 
even more tragic consequences – unchecked behaviour by the authorities, and the 
sense that they can do anything they want.

Demonstrations and other forms of protest, however small, are thus not merely a 
way of demanding change; they symbolise the need to awaken public awareness and 
help people realise what democratic principles really mean.

Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted last 
April, is proof that change is possible even in a Central Asian ruled by a 
dictatorship. The new authorities there are forced to take the people’s views 
into account.

This kind of development irritates, even intimidates Kazakstan’s political 
elite, which fears its own opposition and nation could gain inspiration to take 
action. The popular unrest that brought about the fall of regimes in 
post-Soviet states like Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine is therefore portrayed 
as the work of meddling “western imperialists”. The authorities also try to 
scare people by warning that political unrest can lead to ethnic violence and 
instability.

TV channels in Kazakstan often show scenes of marauding and murder in 
Kyrgyzstan, as if to ask viewers whether that is the sort of thing they want to 
happen in their own country.

For the average citizen of Kazakstan, who is not politically aware or active, 
the choice is clear – peace and order rather than bloodshed and violence. In 
reality, that choice means a total lack of freedom and a society where human 
rights are not respected. Maybe that’s all we deserve.

Sanat Urnaliev is a journalist in Kazakstan.


The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique 
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